Designers share their secrets for unforgettable containers
Sharon Cohoon and Jim McCausland
February 17, 2005
| Updated June 12, 2018
Like a canvas waiting for paint, an empty garden pot can become anything you desire: a meditation in violet, a carnival of oranges and limes, or a quiet study of leaf shapes and textures.
You have more control with containers than anywhere else in the garden, and because you’re planting for a season instead of a lifetime, you have more freedom to experiment. Still, you want to create a successful container planting each and every time.
To help make that happen, we turned to three of the best container designers we know:
Marsha Davis-Thomsen, Seattle, an artist who turned her flair for color and shapes to container gardening in 1995. (206) 914-6263
Mark Bartos, Pasadena, formerly the principal designer for Hortus Nursery in Pasadena and now a garden designer under his own name. (626) 791-2040
Kristen Erchinger, Santa Fe, a horticulturist with a floral-design background at Clemens & Associates. (505) 982-4005
All shared their secrets for putting together dramatic container plantings. You can either re-create their ideas described here, or let them inspire your own compositions.
Davis-Thomsen relies on plants with visual punch that can survive wind, strong sun, and other environmental challenges over a long season. “But I’m also a risk taker―in my own garden, not my clients’―and I experiment a lot with bold, eclectic, and unusual plants,” she says.
Erchinger starts with a plant that makes a strong statement, then builds her composition around it. “I select a plant that moves me, and I allow it to set the tone,” she says. Bartos relies heavily on foliage. “For me, flowers are almost incidental,” he says. Instead, texture is his passion: “I aim for a balance of yin and yang.”
What else makes a great planting?
Because it’s concentrated, color is more intense in pots. That’s part of the pleasure, but there’s a potential pitfall. If you put a whole rainbow of hues into a pot, the result is chaos. To restrain yourself, start with one plant you’ve fallen in love with, suggests Erchinger, then pick the remaining plants to flatter it, not compete with it. Or select one color but vary everything else―flower and leaf shape, color intensity, texture. Monochromatic schemes are very contemporary and always soothing, says Erchinger. If you prefer hotter contrasting colors, separate them with white or blue. Or use lime-colored foliage.
How to plant a container like a pro
Expert tips. It helps to plan the design on paper and then tweak it at planting time. Or try different plant combinations on a wagon at the nursery.
Foliage. Structure, texture, and movement are supplied by foliage plants. If you match one strong foliage plant with one long-flowering annual or perennial, you have the basis of a good container planting, says Erchinger. Davis-Thomsen likes to use oversize nursery stock for her dominant foliage plant―a 5-gallon phormium, for instance. For the remainder of the planting she would use 4-inch pots or smaller.
Container. Choose a pot that suits the architecture of your home and the colors in your garden (including paving material); it should stand up to your climate. Then let the pot determine the overall look of your planting. Use large containers (at least 22-in. diameter) to maximize impact. Drill a drainage hole if your pot doesn’t have one.
Soil. Use a high-quality potting soil. Fill the container about 3/4 full, mix in controlled-release fertilizer, and lightly wet the soil.
Plant placement. Start with the central, most dominant plant, then work toward the outside of the container. When you’re done, pack soil between the rootballs. To allow for adequate watering, there should be at least 2 inches between the top of the soil and the pot’s rim.
Water. Because dry plants attract insects and go out of bloom faster, many designers specify drip irrigation timed to water each container daily. If you don’t use drip, add a water-absorbing polymer to the soil at planting time and check soil daily, watering before it dries out completely. Always water under the leaf canopy to keep the leaves dry.
Fertilizer. After planting, apply liquid fertilizer every two weeks.